What is Righteousness?

heart with plant growing out of it -- what is righteousness


Yesterday one of Wildwind‘s small group leaders texted me asking if I wouldn’t mind explaining the Biblical understanding of righteousness. He said the word had, for him and his group members, a bit of a negative connotation. I’m not sure why this is, other than possibly its legalistic undertone and associations (conscious or not) with self-righteousness. He said the best they were understanding it, it was God’s standard of what is right and wrong. I emailed him an answer that, of course, was more like a personalized sermon so, rather than let it go to waste, I thought I’d post it here for anyone who is interested. If you view God as someone who is ready to punish you, or who demands behavioral perfection from you, I encourage you to read this.

Okay, big theological question here. You’ve pretty much got it, but let me nuance it a little bit. Check out this verse in these two translations:

Matthew 5:20 (NIV)
20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:20 (MSG)
20 Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.

I would encourage you to read the verse in context. Jesus is talking, really, about the impossibility of meeting God’s standard of righteousness. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were impeccable in matters of right living. NO ONE could surpass them, and everyone knew it. So what’s the catch? What is righteousness, then?  

The word translated “righteousness” in the New Testament comes from the Greek dikaiosune, which Dallas Willard translates as “the kingdom heart.” In other words, what Jesus proclaimed was that we need something much, much more than faithful adherence to a set of laws. We need a change of heart. Somehow in their adherence to the law, still Jesus was able to say this about the religious leaders of his day:

Matthew 23:23-24 (NIV)
23 ”Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The Kingdom heart is a heart graced with compassion, love, mercy, faithfulness, etc. That is the heart God is looking for. For Old Testament support, I think of Psalm 51:

Psalm 51:16-19 (NIV)
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar. This puts it in perspective. Here we see that even in Old Testament times, it was not just sacrificing animals that mattered to God. God wants right hearts (dikaiosune). The law was always intended to point to our hearts. When a heart is right, pretty much whatever sacrifice comes from it is right, as in:

Mark 12:41-44 (NIV)
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.
42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ”I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.
44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.”

The point here is not the simple fact that the woman gave all she had. If it were, that would mean that I could automatically bottle God’s approval by simply giving all my stuff away. That’s not the idea, for I could do this and be resentful, or arrogant about it. Rather, it is that this woman had a kingdom heart (dikaiosune). The heart of her giving was correct, and therefore mattered far more than the amount given by others with hearts that were not right.

This little sermon, with scriptures thrown in, is more than enough to illustrate the kingdom heart (dikaiosune), but the Sermon on the Mount, and Dallas Willard’s mind-blowing book The Divine Conspiracy, are completely on that one topic. What does it mean to have a kingdom heart? What does it look like? Whatever it is, that is the righteousness God wants.

Notice in Matthew 24 above, Jesus says, “You should have practiced the former without neglecting the latter.” There is in fact a level of importance to our outward forms of worship, to our practices and disciplines, but as we see in so many of these texts I have given you, it is the heart that gives meaning to the outward forms. Meditation means something when it signifies my desire to know God. Meditation, in and of itself, is meaningless. Our outward forms of worship are important, but they will never secure God’s approval. God wants our hearts.

Consider the idea of my wife making me lunch under two conditions:

1. She slops the first two condiments she finds in the fridge on two pieces of stale bread, throws it on a paper plate, then tosses it on my lap, saying, “Here,” rolling her eyes all along.

2. She connects with me. “Honey, can I bring you a sandwich? What would you like?” She lovingly sets everything out, humming as she spreads on the mayo and mustard. She perhaps double-checks to see how I want it cut. She puts it on a plate, and garnishes it with some carrots or chips. She brings me water, or something else to drink. Sweetly she brings it all out to me and, with a twinkle in her eyes, hands it to me and says, “Here you go, baby. I love you.” As I am eating she says, “Anything else?” Later, perhaps, “Thank you for all you do for our family.” Or perhaps in all this she says nothing at all, but simply goes about the task with joy, glad to be loving me through her service.

Which is better? Which is dikaiosune? Which meets the real craving of the human heart for love? Is there any question at all?

God wants connection, relationship, to be loved (which is also what every human being most deeply wants), and yet we often serve God (and others) like #1 above.

So what is righteousness? What is the Kingdom Heart (dikaiosune)? Cultivating a heart of love for the Father, that responds to him with joy and serves him with thanksgiving, and living towards others out of that heart.
The church tends to focus on right actions, but that’s never what Jesus valued the most. Right actions spring from right hearts.

Matthew 23:25-26 (NIV)
25 ”Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

In view of all of this, the main spiritual question we must ask is how do we live in such as way as to clean the inside? No amount of scouring on the outside will ever get the inside clean. That is, lessons, sermons, and messages about behavior are never going to get to the root of the issue.

Hope this helps.


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3 thoughts on “What is Righteousness?

  1. It’s striking that the world today is still so much the same as it was back in Jesus’ time. We are still consumed with performance & outward appearances. Consider the donation made only for the tax benefit….granted the funds are appreciated, but the donator was not so much the cheerful giver. Or perhaps the politician who poses at the homeless shelter for the media impact. But then, we’re back to the primary theme of TRUTH, aren’t we? It seems that truth is at the root of all that is righteous. 🙂

  2. This is great David. I loved the correlation you made to our wives making us a sandwich. My wife does the same and was very easy for me to relate and personalize this message. I need to do a much better job at serving the Father like that.

    • Thanks, Ryan. I think most of our attempts to work on certain things and get better at stuff (especially at loving) are ultimately destined for failure. Our actions fail because our hearts are not there yet, which is the point, I think, of many of these things Jesus said that I’m pointing out here. So the question, then, is not how can we love God better, the question is how do we cultivate hearts that are capable of it?

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